Tim O’Brien is a famous author and Vietnam war veteran whose works have won many literary awards. O’Brien was drafted into the American army is 1968 and served as a soldier in the 23 Infantry Division, also known as America Division. Although O’Brien vehemently opposed the war, he went on to serve in the Vietnam war from 1968 to 1970, alongside the battalion that had orchestrated the My Lai massacre shortly before his arrival.

Tim O’Brien contains a unique talent for blurring the lines between fiction and reality in his literary works, often juxtaposing real events with fictional situations. He leaves his readers wondering what’s true and what’s not. Some of his acclaimed pieces include the famous collection of short stories The Things They Carried, Vietnam in me, and his very first novel, which he calls more of a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. 


The Things They Carried

Of all his works, The Things They Carried is by far the most famous and is often used as study material in high schools as well. If, however, you don’t want to read the entire book or only want in-depth essay samples or examples, then there are several essay samples on The Things They Carried that can be found online on sites such as StudyDriver. You can also read this article if you want to have a better understanding of what O’Brien wanted to tell his audience.

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien introduces a character with the same name and many of the same biographical details as himself. Leaving readers to wonder what is real and what, as he so aptly says himself, does not “exist in the world of material objects.”

The protagonist of the 1990 novel, much like O’Brien himself, is Tim, a young lad who fiercely opposes the Vietnam war when he is suddenly drafted. The rest of the stories chronicle Tim’s life as he enters the war as a soldier, and his life after it as he battles with the traumatizing memories of war. Two of the most exciting stories in this collection are “On the Rainy River” and “Field Trip.” This is because both these chapters are widely assumed to be true. In “On the Rainy River,” a young O’Brien escapes to a Canadian fishing outpost when he learns that he has been drafted into the army. Here he ponders over whether he should go back and serve in the military in a war he doesn’t agree with or whether he should live the rest of his life as a draft evader. His careful play on words makes readers wonder whether evading army duty and sticking to one’s internal beliefs is an act of cowardice or courage. In reality, although the real Tim O’Brien did agonize over the decision for quite some time, there was no running away to a Canadian fishing post.

The other important story in The Things They Carried is “Field Trip.” In this story, the protagonist takes his 10-year-old daughter Kathleen to Vietnam to try to explain the effects of war on her. The father also wants to gain some closure from his horrifying experiences of losing a close friend and comrade during the war. The story is so well put together and touches on emotional issues with such ease that readers are usually confident the event mirrors reality, even if they have fictional elements in them.  However, readers may be surprised to find out that the entire event described in the story was fictional. You see, the real Tim O’Brien never had any children, and so the whole trip is completely made up.

In the same way, O’Brien uses many fictional instances to portray some real emotions that result from war. O’Brien talks about events such as dedications to soldiers, who turn out to be entirely fictional, and some situations that O’Brien himself was in. These stories seem to be very plausible abut are, in fact, not true. Thus, they confuse readers when it comes to determining what fact and fiction are. In the original version of the book, which is a compilation of his earlier short stories, O’Brien was quick to notify audiences at the end of his stories that what they’ve just been reading is actually fiction.

However, in the revised editions, O’Brien’s editor Camille Hykes has carefully erased such reality checks. Both O’Brien and his editor felt that the book would be much more impactful if his “tricks” weren’t exposed so promptly and carried some element of mystery. The audience, though, is divided, with many feelings that O’Brien’s inserts about fact and fiction added a new and different dimension to the book, an element which is lost in the latest editions.


Tim OBriens Literary Accolades

  • In 1979 Tim O’Brien won the National Book Award in fiction for his novel Going After Cacciato. His collection of short stories The Things They Carried, won Book of the Century award by the New York Times and was also a Pulitzer finalist.
  • Other acclaimed novels written by Tim O’Brien include Northern Lights and Tomcat in Love.
  • Tim O’Brien’s memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, the title of which is based on a military cadence, was a national bestseller.
  • The Society of American Historians awarded Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods with the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. This book also won the title of the best novel of 1994 by Time magazine.
  • Tim O’Brien won the Katherine Anne Porter Award in 2010 for being a distinguished author with an eminent body of work
  • In 2012 Tim O’Brien was awarded the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation.
  • Tim O’Brien’s final award was the Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing which he received in 2013



Tim O’Brien is an acclaimed military writer whose work reflects his time served in the American army in the notorious 23 Infantry Division during the Vietnam war. O’Brien has won numerous awards for his work, and reading his novels explains why. What makes O’Brien’s work stand apart from the rest is his uncanny ability to mix fact with fiction, reality with fantasy, leaving readers to wonder if everything they read is true or just the musings of a wounded war veteran. His 1990 collection of short stories The Things They Carried is one of the few excellent examples of a masterfully written military novel that artfully juxtaposes fact with fiction.